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The Island Of The Seals

The people who fled to Island Roan during the tragic clearances in Sutherland found a way of life dominated by sheep, the land and the "unending music of the sea." Even now, the short trip over takes visitors back in time.

BY BRUCE MACGREGOR SANDISON

On a wild night in December 1938, the last inhabitants of Eilean nan Ron boarded a small boat and set off into the gathering storm. Their destination was Skerray Harbour, one mile distant across the broken seas that constantly torment the north coast of Scotland. Shattered waves drenched them with ice-cold spray as the boat pitched and tossed on the angry waters. The homes that they had left behind quickly merged into the all-enveloping wall of darkness. Ahead on the mainland, lights from cottages around Skerray flickered and beckoned. But that night, on the island that they had called home, the lights went out forever.

Eilean na Ron, more commonly known today as Island Roan, lies in the parish of Tongue in North Sutherland, east of the entrance to the shallow waters and golden sands of the Kyle of Tongue. The Gaelic meaning of the name is "the island of seals," because Island Roan is a favoured breeding ground for these mystical creatures. The island is one-mile long by up to half-a-mile wide and it covers an area of 700 acres. The highest point on the island is 247 feet above sea level and to the northwest, separated by a narrow channel, lies a satellite isle, little Eilean Iosal. The only safe place to land on Island Roan is at Port na h-Uaille, where there is a landing stage from which steps have been cut into the cliff face leading up to the village.

In the early years of the 19th century, during the harsh times of the Sutherland Clearances, when people were evicted from their homes to make way for more profitable sheep, families trekked north from the fertile straths in which they had lived to the exposed coastal lands overlooking the North Sea. After the Strathnaver evictions in 1819 many of the destitute settled at Skerray, "between the rocks and the sea," and, in 1820, four families crossed over to Island Roan to start a new life there. Eventually, the community expanded to more than 70 people and they lived and sustained themselves by fishing and farming, sheep and cattle and whatever crops they could grow -- oats, hay, potatoes, turnips -- on the small, cultivable area of land around which they built their homes.

But by the 1930s it had become clear that the few people remaining on the island could no longer sustain themselves. The impact of two World Wars and the departure of families to the mainland and overseas to Australia, Canada and America overshadowed the lives of those who remained. The lack of able-bodied men to carry out the essential, every day tasks required to exist in such a remote environment meant that, ultimately, evacuation was inevitable.

On a warm morning last October, I set out from Skerray Harbour in search of memories of the people who had lived and loved and thrived on Island Roan.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2007 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Scotland's Ancient Stone of Destiny by Keith Aitken.

Photos: © Michael Roper